Road to Re­demp­tion

Datuk Michelle Yeoh is back in a wuxia flick in John Woo’s Reign Of As­sas­sins as a hired killer de­ter­mined to erase her blood­stained past.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By CHEW WAN YING

WITH John Woo’s name be­ing high­lighted on the movie poster, one would have eas­ily mis­taken Reign Of As­sas­sins as the lat­est cin­e­matic ef­fort by the renowned di­rec­tor.

In­deed, the Chi­nese wuxia (mar­tial arts) film was branded by many as a John Woo film, when Woo and com­pany did the pro­mo­tional cir­cuit for the film re­cently.

That was why at the be­gin­ning of this in­ter­view, the di­rec­tor was quick to point out that he was the pro­ducer who “just sat be­hind, kept my mouth shut, watched and en­joyed” dur­ing the shoot­ing of the movie.

In­stead, he cred­ited Tai­wanese writer/di­rec­tor Su Chao-pin with helm­ing what the Chi­nese crit­ics called the best wuxia work af­ter Ang Lee’s ground­break­ing, Os­car­win­ning Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon a decade ago.

Woo’s first mar­tial arts pro­duc­tion boasts a stel­lar in­ter­na­tional cast com­pris­ing the most soughtafter names in to­day’s Hong Kong cin­ema: our very own Datuk Michelle Yeoh, the award-win­ning Wang Xueqi of China, South Korean heart­throb Jung Woo-sung, Tai­wanese dar­lings Bar­bie Hsu and Kelly Lin and hunky Hong Kong ac­tor Shawn Yue. Even Woo’s daugh­ter An­ge­les, 33, has a part in the movie.

Be­fore you write it off as just an­other kung fu flick, Woo, 64, wants you to know that Reign Of As­sas­sins is a wuxia film with a heart.

Un­der­neath the daz­zling dis­play of sword-play and fan­ci­ful weapons – which in­cluded a bend­able sword, a mag­i­cal rope, pow­er­ful sil­ver chop­sticks and fly­ing nee­dles – is a love story, a woman’s path to re­demp­tion laced with face makeover, trea­sure chase and high sus­pense that can ri­val a spy flick. Wait a minute, face makeover? Face/Off, any­one? “It was Su’s idea. Maybe he’s in­spired by Face/Off,” said Woo of his 1997 hit star­ring John Tra­volta and Nicolas Cage. Though both films share the ap­pear­ance-al­ter­ing plot, the act car­ries dif­fer­ent sig­nif­i­cance in the two films.

Face/Off is about how you have to turn into some­one in or­der to beat him. It’s more about the bat­tle be­tween good and evil.

“In Reign Of As­sas­sins, the pro­tag­o­nist does it be­cause she wants to leave be­hind her past and get a new life,” said Woo at The Fuller­ton Ho­tel Singapore last week.

The movie sees for­mer as­sas­sin Xi Yu (Lin) get­ting a new face and a new iden­tity to be­come an or­di­nary cloth seller and em­bark on a new life. A post-surgery Xi Yu (Yeoh) tries to ad­just to her new peace­ful life as she falls in love with a mes­sen­ger boy called Ah Sheng (Jung), only to see her dark past catch­ing up with her.

Xi Yu doesn’t have a choice but to face as­so­ci­ates from her past: the Wheel King (Wang) and his as­sas­sin squad con­sist­ing of Lei Bin (Yue), Zhan Qing (Hsu) and the Ma­gi­cian (Leon Dai).

When Woo read the script Su wrote three years ago, he was in­trigued by how dif­fer­ent it was from the con­ven­tional wuxia of­fer­ings.

“ Reign Of As­sas­sins is unique as it fo­cuses on hu­man na­ture and emo­tions. Few wuxia and ac­tion films touched on that in the past, as films of such genre were meant to be fast-paced and en­ter­tain­ing.

“There was a great love story and it was the very first time a wuxia film is told from a fe­male per­spec­tive. That’s what I’ve been look­ing for, for many years.

“I al­ways be­lieve a good ac­tion movie should have nice drama and hu­man el­e­ments. The ac­tion should com­ple­ment the drama. In Reign Of As­sas­sins, the de­pic­tion of re­la­tion­ships be­tween the char­ac­ters and the fight scenes make a great combo,” he ex­plained. In­stead of di­rect­ing the film him­self, he en­trusted Su with the task. If you look at the lat­ter’s re­sume, it’s not hard to un­der­stand why.

Su is one of the most promis­ing screen­writ­ers-turned-film­mak­ers in re­cent years.

Af­ter im­press­ing crit­ics with his orig­i­nal scripts for The Cab­bie, Dou­ble Vi­sion and Go­ing Home (a seg­ment di­rected by Peter Chan Ho­sun in Three), he turned to di­rect­ing and came up with Silk, the sci-fi su­per­nat­u­ral film that gar­nered nom­i­na­tions, in­clud­ing Best Film, Best Di­rec­tor and Best Screen­play at the Golden Horse Awards in 2006.

“I watched Silk and I found him to be a very gifted filmmaker, which was why I lent my full sup­port to him and sug­gested he di­rect the film him­self. In that way, it helped re­tain the orig­i­nal el­e­ments of the story,” said Woo.

Through­out the in­ter­view, the au­teur, noted for his string of clas­sics that changed the face of Hong Kong ac­tion cin­ema – among them

Gifted Su Chao-pin

A Bet­ter To­mor­row, The Killer and Hard Boiled, which all starred Chow Yun-fat – re­it­er­ated that he was merely play­ing an as­sist­ing role to Su and did not in­ter­fere with the cre­ative process.

“I have a rel­a­tively richer ex­pe­ri­ence in mak­ing ac­tion films. This is Su’s first at­tempt at a big-scaled ac­tioner. So I as­sisted him in the tech­ni­cal as­pects,” he said.

For the ac­tion scenes, Woo roped in Stephen Tung, the mul­ti­ple-award-win­ning ac­tion chore­og­ra­pher of Pur­ple Storm (1999), the Jackie Chan-star­rer The Ac­ci­den­tal Spy (2001) and last year’s pe­riod ac­tion drama Body­guards And As­sas­sins.

The spec­tac­u­lar fight scenes have sent early re­view­ers ooh-ing and ah-ing and thus, the film has earned a com­par­i­son to Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon.

But Woo stated that there was a dif­fer­ence be­tween the two films.

“I don’t want elab­o­rate ac­tion. Be­fore we started shoot­ing, we all agreed that we should make it nat­u­ral and beau­ti­ful.

“I want the fights to be re­al­is­tic enough to move the au­di­ence. I want it to come with feel­ings and im­pact. At the same time, I want it to look good. Now that’s a great chal­lenge.

“We had never thought of Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon when we shot Reign Of As­sas­sins. It’s a bril­liant film. I have a lot of re­spect for Ang Lee, both as a friend and as a filmmaker. His ver­sion of wuxia was very ro­man­tic and the film was a clas­sic.

“For Reign Of As­sas­sins, we tried to avoid the over-the-top, fly­ing-inthe air kind of stunts. We aimed to be re­al­is­tic, not just in the fights, but also in the char­ac­ters’ ex­pres­sion of the feel­ings. We want it to look like it’s from the bot­tom of their hearts,” he said.

“Al­though both films star Yeoh, I per­son­ally think she does it bet­ter here than in Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon as she is the cen­tral char­ac­ter,” he said.

“When we read the script, it seemed like it’s writ­ten for her. She’s our first choice and we’d never thought of any­body else.”

An­ge­les’ screen de­but

While vet­eran A-lis­ters like Yeoh and Wang com­manded at­ten­tion in the film, a rel­a­tively un­known girl made her act­ing de­but in Reign Of As­sas­sins.

She is no or­di­nary new­comer though. She is Woo’s daugh­ter An­ge­les, an as­pir­ing filmmaker who took on a role as an as­sas­sin.

See­ing his daugh­ter on the set was, of course, dif­fer­ent from di­rect­ing other ac­tors in a film.

Woo talked about the anx­i­ety he felt as a fa­ther watch­ing his daugh­ter do­ing the dan­ger­ous stunts: “I treated her like other cast mem­bers. But as a fa­ther, it’s hard not to worry about cer­tain things. It was, af­ter all, her first time.

“I was es­pe­cially ner­vous when she was re­quired to do some wire work,” he said, adding that it was good train­ing for An­ge­les.

Life­time achieve­ment

In his il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer of 37 years, Woo is one of the few Hong Kong di­rec­tors who have made it in Hollywood with box-of­fice hits like Face/Off and Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble II, with the lat­ter be­ing the high­est­gross­ing film of 2000.

While his later Hollywood films Windtalk­ers and Pay­check failed to live up to the suc­cess of Face/Off, Woo was grate­ful for the ex­po­sure in Tin­sel­town and in re­cent years turned his eyes to the new film­ing hub of China.

In 2008, he made a tri­umphant re­turn to Chi­nese cin­ema with Red Cliff, a star-stud­ded epic adapted from the his­tor­i­cal text Records Of Three King­doms.

“I’ve spent 16 years in Hollywood and had so many good ex­pe­ri­ences in be­tween. Five years ago I de­cided that it’s about time that I brought back what I’ve learnt back to Asia.

“There is a lot of young tal­ent in China who have great pas­sion in film­mak­ing.

“I hope to make more good movies, bring the best of both worlds to­gether, so that we un­der­stand each other more,” said Woo.

More re­cently, his ef­fort was ac­knowl­edged by the jury of the Venice Film Fes­ti­val led by Quentin

Tarantino, who awarded him the Golden Lion for life­time achieve­ment last month.

The hum­ble Woo quipped that it was a bit too early for him to re­ceive the award, be­cause “I still have hair.” Nev­er­the­less, he views it as a form of mo­ti­va­tion to come up with bet­ter films in the fu­ture.

“It’s a ges­ture of sup­port and care and it would def­i­nitely en­cour­age me to do more films in the fu­ture.

“My dream film has not ar­rived yet. When I look back, I find that ev­ery film of mine has flaws. So I would def­i­nitely keep go­ing,” he vowed.

Maybe that means we would not have to wait long to see a John Woo wuxia film, com­plete with his trade­marks.

“I have my own mar­tial arts film to make, with fly­ing doves, ro­mance and broth­er­hood ( laughs).

“I would love to pay trib­ute to King Hu, Chang Cheh and Akira Kuro­sawa.

“I am sav­ing the good things for my­self ( laughs) and I hope Su can help me then,” he said. Reign Of As­sas­sins opens in Malaysian cine­mas on Oct 14.

Team work: (from left) Pro­ducer John Woo, ac­tress Datuk Michelle Yeoh and di­rec­tor Su Chao-pin

pro­mot­ing ReignOfAs­sas­sins in Singapore.

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